Last Federal election, John Howard lied about “children overboard” and succeeded in whipping up racist panic and hysteria around refugees on board the HMV Tampa, a tactic many commentators think won him the election. As the next election looms, he is up to the same tricks, and this time it is gays and lesbians he plans to scapegoat.
In May, Howard announced plans to amend the Family Law Act to exclude same-sex couples from the definition of marriage. Howard hopes a dose of homophobic fear and bigotry will distract voters from asking what the government knew about the torture of Iraqi prisoners, or why no weapons of mass destruction have been found. He wants to deflect from his tax cuts for the rich, while students are being forced to pay 25% more in HECS.
Just as the last time around, when the ALP went quiet on defence of refugees, Mark Latham has come out against same-sex marriage and, to be sure it was clear where he stood, he also opposed the segment featuring lesbian parenting on the ABC children’s program, Play School.
In the Netherlands, Belgium and some states of Canada and the U.S. same-sex couples can now legally marry. Thousands have seized the opportunity, among them three Australian couples who married in Ontario, the only jurisdiction to grant licences to non-residents who want to marry. These couples are looking at an Australian court challenge in a bid to get their marriages recognised. Howard’s aim is to change the law and prevent “activist judges” from giving legal recognition to these unions.
As a feminist, I don’t think much of the institution of marriage. It is a patriarchal economic arrangement which many couples — both same-sex and opposite-sex — want nothing to do with. But, despite this, I oppose Howard’s plans to amend the Family Law Act, and I unequivocally defend the right of gays and lesbians to wed. Some want to marry because of the legal protections it brings. Laws such as the Victorian Relationships Act, passed in 2001, improve rights for same-sex couples but still do not guarantee equality. For others, it is the principle of equally recognising and valuing same-sex relationships that marriage brings.
Recognition of defacto relationships, no-fault divorce laws and the mass entry of women into the workforce have had a great social impact. Many people now see marriage as simply one among many types of domestic arrangements. Winning the right for gays and lesbians to marry will reinforce this trend. The fight for equal rights for queers to marry can help turn this very oppressive institution into its opposite!
Opinion polls suggest that John Howard may well have chosen the wrong “wedge.” Many heterosexuals understand that when social conservatives elevate “traditional” marriage above other social arrangements, it’s an attack on their choices. As well as attacking queers, conservative “family values” also undermine any domestic relationship or parenting arrangement which doesn’t fit the conservative world view of Dad at work, Mum at home cooking, cleaning and rearing the kids. Which translates as the woman working unpaid for 18 hours a day to keep him at work while raising the next generation of wage slaves — both partners being shackled together for life.
The modern gay liberation movement, which burst onto the scene in the late ’60s, has had a huge impact on society’s view of itself. The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes conducted by the ANU showed 65% of those in the 18 to 35 age group recognise and accept gay families. Even among the supposedly conservative over 65s, the level of acceptance is still running at a healthy 45%. An SBS World News poll had just 44% opposing gay marriage and The Age poll ran strongly in favour of the positive depiction of lesbian mums on Play School.
The fight for relationship equality has the potential to re-energise and radicalise the movement for queer liberation. We need to hit the streets and organise to ensure that the gains of the last 35 years are not eroded. Let’s fight for our right to choose marriage. But also to be monogamous or non-monogamous; to live alone, in couples or communally; to express our gender or our sexuality however we choose; to be celibate or to be sex radicals; to have children or not have children or to raise children communally. Let’s forge a world which has the right to free choice with full equality at its core!